As soon as the guests had all been escorted out of the room to depart for their respective homes, servants swarmed through once again and removed the remains of the meal until the place was spotless again. The emperor, and the six of us who were left, were kept supplied with wine, since the emperor retained his glass and apparently wanted it kept full, though he didn’t drink it very fast. I sipped at my glass; after all, I was sitting directly across from the emperor, I was expected to do the same as he did. It was bitter and strong. I didn’t like it. It was all I could do not to make a face every time I tasted it. (This is a small example of how ignorant I was of my magic. I could have turned the wine into water and simply colored it differently, but I didn’t think of that).
While the servants were bustling around, the emperor sat in his chair across from my mother in silence. When the servants were finished, the man who was apparently their manager, bowed to the emperor, and then they all were gone.
The emperor sat there for a long time just looking at the three of us. Then he looked directly at me and spoke with a voice that was as smooth and calm as his bearing. “Your mother has tried to explain to me how it is that you do what you do, but it’s apparent that she has little or no understanding of it herself and so had difficulty speaking of it. Could you perhaps do better?”
I sat up straighter and tried to explain much as Durmas had tried to explain it to me. “My magic is an elemental magic. I can manipulate the elements around me. The four major elements are earth, air, fire and water. Most of what I do deals with those four elements, either one, or more often, all of them.”
“You say you manipulate the elements around you. How do you do that?” he asked, as he leaned forward on his elbows.
I don’t know how it happens exactly, but what I do is draw from the elements around me to make something I need, or simply move that element to a different location. The more unnatural the task, the more energy it takes to perform it.”
“So tell me what you did to your grandfather.”
I looked at my mother, but she just nodded, she had told me that I was to tell the plain truth if it ever came to this. “I didn’t know he was my grandfather until that evening. He kidnapped my parents. He turned me and my companion at the time, Pip over there, into articles of freight. He abandoned Pip and left him to die of starvation. And to top it all off, he had me flogged; sixteen lashes to commemorate my birthday, which had happened while I was securely packed in his crate. I was very angry, my dad was scared and my mom was crying.”
The emperor listened quietly without changing the expression on his face. If he hadn’t been looking directly at me, I might have wondered if he was paying attention to what I was saying.
“The baron had heard of my magic, probably from one of my father’s reports about the planet where we had been living. He wanted to use me - to control my magic, I guess. He ordered me to make him a pile of gold. I can’t just make something like that. I can find it and bring it like he wanted, but I was too angry to want to please him, so I drew on the closest supply, and there was a lot. I began to change his floor into gold. When he got down off of his pedestal to touch the floor, I couldn’t resist; I changed him into gold too.”
“Can you change him back?”
I knew someone would ask me that question someday. “I think I can make him meat, bones and assorted organs again, but there won’t be any life in it. It won’t be the same either; the matter that was the baron was changed, it doesn’t exist any more.”
He sat back and looked at me for a while, thinking about what I had said. “You’ve made it clear that you can kill with your magic and killing a baron, regardless of the reason, is a crime. What good have you done with your magic?”
He was right, but I had to think for a moment. What good had I done with my magic? I had never thought of anything that I did with my magic as being good or evil, and I was haunted by at least one of the deaths I had been responsible for, but before I could form an answer Colin stood up. Obviously, he had heard the question.
“He made it possible for me to walk on a real planet; something I was always told I would never do.”
The emperor looked up at him. He was obviously surprised at the audacity. “Come forward,” he said, with a wave of his hand that seemed elegant without seeming effeminate in the least. As soon as Colin was standing at my mother’s shoulder, he said, “Explain yourself.”
“My mother ran away with a miner shortly before I was born. I was raised on an asteroid until my father finally found us. I was thirteen years old before I knew any gravity at all. It took me three years before I could tolerate the low gravity of the space station where my father was a governor and that wasn’t a pleasant experience even then. During our journey here, Liam made me stronger. He made my bones thicker and my muscles bulkier. I still tire pretty fast, but at least I have a chance.”
The emperor turned back to me. “What did you do?”
“I drew the matter from the frozen sides of meat in the kitchen freezer. There were muscles and bones already made. I looked up on the computer for the correct dimensions and let the magic do the rest. I’m not sure if I got it all right. We could both benefit from a visit to a doctor. He could tell me what I did wrong, or not well enough, and I could fix it.”
The emperor looked at me and cocked his head almost imperceptibly. After a moment, he asked, “Have your other companions felt your magic or seen it?”
“Yes sir, they have.”
“Mr. Pip, step forward and tell me what you have seen.”
Pip and Georgy took up a position next to Colin, and told of my making our food and then changing the appearance of my clothes on two separate occasions.
Georgy told of our first meeting just outside of the palace walls and what it had felt like to be held by nothing but air.
As amazing as these facts were, it appeared as though the emperor was thinking about other facts. “The baron sent imperial troops to a non-member planet to trap you? He wanted you very badly indeed. And you say he turned you into freight; just how did he do that, and how could he keep you that way, if you could do the things you say you can?”
“I was trying to trace my parents, so I had to cooperate with them. I had to endure everything they did to me in the hopes that they eventually took me to my parents, and then I figured I could do whatever I needed to do in order to get us out of whatever we found when we got there.”
He sat back and looked at Pip, Colin and Georgy. “You may return to your seats.” He watched them until they were seated, and then he studied my mother and father as if he could read what was going on beneath their skins. Finally, he said, “I would like to see an example of your magic.”
The guards shifted uneasily. It was the first movement from them since this whole meeting had begun. I looked at the emperor’s glass of wine. It was half-full or perhaps a little less. I reached a hand toward it. One of the guards pinned my hand to the table, but the emperor waved it away and sat back to watch. I first thought to change the glass into a basilisk, but I changed my mind, the basilisk was me; the emperor needed something elegant. Then I had it; there was a crane-like bird on Planet 663-457 that would be perfect. Under my fingers, his wine glass stretched and swayed. It came together at the mouth and stretched up into a thin, long graceful neck with a long sharp beak and sensitive spiked feathers around its neck. Its mouth was open, ready to catch the unwary rodent that might rush by. This bird did not fish in the shallow rivers but hunted in the tall grasses. The stem divided and became two long thin legs. The wings and tail feathers trailed down almost to the tabletop offering the unwary rodent a false shelter from the hunting beak only for a moment. The dark red wine that had been the contents of the glass colored the slender body and tinted the rest of the glass by its presence. The guard didn’t relax for a moment, even when I removed my hand from the glass figurine. He was really quite pale.
The emperor carefully picked up the figurine and looked it over closely, succeeding in tipping a few drops of red wine out of the open mouth in the process. “I like this.” He set it back down on the table between us. “I’m curious about one thing though. Why did it take you so long to come here? Why didn’t you make your petition sooner?”
“We took the first ship coming in this direction,” said my father. “We broke down only a month out and lost power. We were under tow the rest of the way into dock.”
“I see. I heard about that ship. Attacked by pirates too, as the report states. Pirate Randall was captured trying to take the ship. It seems he was having all sorts of trouble. He ranks very high on our most wanted list.” The emperor looked directly at me. “You wouldn’t have something to do with that trouble, would you?”
“Yes sir, most of it anyway,” I replied.
“I see,” he said with a hint of a smile. He looked back to my parents, suddenly serious again. “Lydia, you and your husband will go back to the barony and take up where your father left off. It is proper, as his only living heir, that you do so. Your son will stay here under my close personal supervision. Your seat and welfare will depend on his behavior. This arrangement will continue until I feel certain that your son is safe, or until he can be made safe. Mr. Pip, you and your nephew will be properly compensated for your services. You will then be free to go wherever you wish. Mr. Colin. You too will remain here at least for a time. I’m curious to see what the doctor has to say about you.” He rose, took his transformed wine glass and his guards with him and left the room. We had been dismissed. The meeting was over.
As soon as the emperor was gone, servants came and escorted us in our separate directions. Mother gave me a hug and pulled me down to plant a kiss on my cheek. “Everything will be just fine, you’ll see. I love you.”
Father shook my hand. “We’ll keep in touch.”
“You better,” I said. “Don’t make me come find you again.”
They both waved as they were escorted to the door. I know mom was crying again before she got there. I hoped everything would be fine.”